Matthew Lickona 3 p.m., April 28
Small Yet Potent Plates, Pleasant Ambience and a Galactic Burrito at Kecho's Cafe
I’ve loved Ocean Beach’s Olive Tree Marketplace since my first visit back in 2009. It was then I discovered their vast selection of hard-to-find craft beers. It kept me coming back, and those visits afforded me the opportunity to keep an eye on the progress of their side project—a tasting room offering quality ales and lagers in a sophisticated speakeasy-like environment. Added incentive for braving the too often congested Sunset Cliffs Boulevard all the way to Narragansett.
Recently, the team at Olive Tree added another facet to what they’re almost single-handedly turning into the most foodie-friendly little block in OB—a restaurant called Kecho’s Café. I took one of the three days afforded me last weekend to give it a taste and found the same commitment to creating an inviting, tasty experience as the one driving the market and the tasting room.
Before I even had a bite, the staff put me in a good mood. Their conversational and downright jovial approach to service is perfectly suited for a neighborhood eatery, particularly one in a part of town filled with laid back citizens who, for the most part, mirror that personality type. Questions about the menu were answered knowledgeably and without a bunch of uhs and let me check with the chef comments. That’s helpful at a place offering mostly-Greek Mediterranean fare and menu entries free of translation (stewed dandelion greens show up as horta in a dish of lamb chops referred to as arnisia).
At Kecho’s Café, the mantra, as included on the bill of fare, is “small plates, only small plates, and nothing but small plates.” Many restaurants have charted a course down this road of late, but few are doing it as well as this new spot. The menu is just extensive enough and smartly broken down into four sections—salads, flatbreads, vegetarian mezzes (small dishes), and meat/seafood mezzes. All provide a wide variety of options that run the gamut and—holy lack of ubiquitous fare, Batman—don’t include any puntables like mac ‘n’ cheese, sliders, pork belly, or short ribs. With the exceptions of the aforementioned lamb chops, most everything is unlike what you’ll find around town, and that’s refreshing, making for a menu with a great deal of appeal. It’s nice to have small plates at affordable prices (nothing over $14, and all but four items under $10), so you can enjoy multiple dishes…which I did on my visit.
Dish one was the first Greek cheese plate of my life, which included a mild kasseri (a firm, unpasteurized sheep’s milk cheese); a harder, tangy, Fontina-like kefalograviera; and a spicy dip made with salty feta. House-brined olives (a nod to Olive Tree Marketplace that actually comes complimentary to all diners), figs, blackberries, and strips of flatbread round things out, providing the basis for some fun mix-and-matchery. It’s not something I’d order again, but is different and a nice starter for a group to nosh on while negotiating what else to share.
The biggest hit of the night for me was calamari stuffed with a bready filling of feta, mint and orange. The squid was tender and ballooned to maximum capacity with the stuffing, which was bright and tasty despite the fact the mint really didn’t come through. I also appreciated the fact that the dish included the cephalopod’s grilled tentacles, which are actually my favorite part of a creature I rarely am intrigued enough to order, but was very glad I did.
Another item I don’t often order—lamb chops—was both interesting enough to garner my attention, and deliciously memorable. The menu version of the dish includes a lemon-herb dressing that’s nicely citric without being vinegar-like, but they’ll also let you try it with a fig and port wine sauce they use on their braised pork loin mezze. They’ll even let you try both on the same plate, which I thought was very cool, and took advantage of. The lemon herb won on a warm spring night, but I could see myself gravitating toward the sticky-sweet, heartier port condiment on a cooler evening.
A flatbread topped with salty pancetta, whole roasted garlic, spinach, and Fontina was homey and a pleasant challenge, thanks to a plentiful amount of cheese. I’d have preferred the garlic to be more caramelized, and there could have been some olive oil or otherwise condiment-driven moisture, but it was perfectly acceptable. More successful was a take on the Greek classic, bagna caoda, which included a refined presentation and the optimal balance of a laundry list of ingredients. Moist grilled eggplant was elevated with saltiness brought on by a sauce made with anchovies plus shaved cheese. A second fromage—goat—brought some tartness in tandem with sun-dried tomatoes.
Last but definitely not least was a dessert I’ve only seen at Kecho’s. It’s called galaktoboureko (don’t be scared…pronounce it like “galactic burrito” and you’re home free), and is basically a pair of vanilla custard-filled phyllo dough rolls baked, then brushed with orange glaze and served alongside a generous scoop of pistachio ice cream. The latter is light and refreshing, and provides a nice contrast to the doughnut like warmth and softness of its phyllo counterpart. It’s downright romantic, as is the venue in which it’s served—a place I’m looking forward to returning to on my next craft beer run.
Kecho’s Café is located at 1774 Sunset Cliffs Boulevard.